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I’ve Spent Decades Failing to Negotiate Peace in the Middle East. Trump’s ‘Ultimate Deal’ Is Doomed, Too

8 minute read

Having served as a State Department Middle East adviser and negotiator on Arab-Israel matters for more than two decades in both Republican and Democratic Administrations, I’ve seen and helped concoct a few pretty odd and mostly unsuccessful peace plans. But rarely have I seen an endeavor that was stranger than the recently released part one of the Trump Administration’s “ultimate deal”: a two-day, late-June meeting of donors from around the world in Bahrain, with hopes that showing the Palestinians how much better and more prosperous their lives could be will make them more flexible negotiators. Or, perhaps, persuade them to abandon what the Trump Administration considers unrealistic goals: statehood, with a real capital sovereign over most of east Jerusalem.

In fairness, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is really hard. Neither Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has the intention nor the will to take on the big issues that would allow even a skillful mediator to bridge the gaps. And all the former U.S. negotiators who have been skeptical of the Trump approach (myself included) failed too.

But even with all these asterisks, unless the Administration’s standard for victory is saying “we tried,” blaming the Palestinians and siding with the Israelis to gain advantage in the 2020 elections, the chances of success are slim to none. Here’s why.

You Can’t Buy a Palestinian State

Every time I’ve met with Jared Kushner, I always come away thinking he’s what I could never be — a smart, successful, high-rolling business guy who has a head for numbers and risk, and who knows when not to throw good money after bad. After all, his career hasn’t been spent in the grey nuances of diplomacy but in the black-and-white, bottom-line world of New York real estate development. The problem is that this kind of rational economic cost-benefit analysis doesn’t easily translate to what is fundamentally a political conflict. Sure, these negotiations are part real-estate deal over land. But they are also shaped by a bitter struggle between two peoples, driven by historical trauma, identity, dignity, security and contested sacred religious space.

The Administration’s current plan misunderstands the Palestinian stake in the conflict and, even if it was not its intention, reveals that Trump and Kushner think the Palestinians can be bought off. It signals an assumption that Palestine can be induced to settle or compromise on what they regard as their basic rights in exchange for economic and financial incentives.

But if this was a matter of money and improving lives, we might well have bought a solution decades ago. I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned economic initiatives and Middle East Marshall Plans have gone the way of the dodo over the years. Kushner is right: creating better lives for Palestinians through accountable institutions and the development of both infrastructure and industry is a key factor in securing peace. But it’s not the key to achieving a conflict-ending solution.

It may be politically inconvenient for the Trump Administration to admit, but on this one, economics can’t trump politics. A vibrant economy that moves people and goods requires security, predictability, transparency, freedom of movement and capital, and, above all, buy-in from the political establishment. It can’t be done in a free-fire zone (see Gaza) or in a West Bank where 60% is still controlled by the Israelis and where the Palestinian Authority that controls the remaining 40% face serious political and economic constraints. Why would serious investors want to put their money into Gaza or the West Bank without assurance that the region will be stable and secure and that people and goods can move without impediments and restrictions? Or without a clearer understanding of who will have authority over land, water and development? Neither of those fundamental questions can currently be answered.

Since They Can’t Be Bought, the Palestinians Won’t Show Up

Right now, no credible, serious Palestinians plan to attend the Bahrain conference. A Palestinian business organization claiming to represent 80% of the Palestinian private sector said they would boycott the summit. Ibrahim Barham, head of one of the largest West Bank technology companies, said he wouldn’t attend because “there’s no clue to any solution.” Zahi W. Khouri, who owns the Coca-Cola franchise in West Bank and Gaza, condemned the Bahrain workshop as a “blatant payoff” and compared the Israeli occupation to “trying to strangle a woman while giving her a manicure.”

The Administration has only itself to blame for this impression. For the past two years, the Kushner team has waged an unrelenting campaign of pressure against Palestinians: cutting West Bank assistance; pulling U.S. funding from United Nations Relief and Works Agency; closing the PLO office in Washington, while rewarding the Israelis with recognition of Jerusalem as their capital; opening an embassy there; and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. If they wanted to create an environment to sow distrust, anger and suspicion, they couldn’t have cooked up a better one in a laboratory.

The Arabs Won’t Deliver

One of the more positive aspects of the Trump Administration’s approach to the peacemaking issue has been its success in engaging key Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both have announced their intention to attend the Bahrain workshop. Building on an already-emerging consensus between Israel and the Gulf in reaction to twin threats from a rising Iran and transnational Sunni jihadis like ISIS, Kushner’s team has made this a core element of its plan.

But it’s not at all clear that the Saudis are prepared to put serious money into this particular effort, which may empower their adversaries. Their archrival Qatar has already been funneling money into Gaza and pledged additional funds to the Palestinian Authority — so the Saudis may not be keen to create a serious or sustained revenue stream, or risk getting into a bidding war for influence. They also won’t want to alienate President Trump, particularly since he’s all but forgiven them for their murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and is now bypassing Congress to sell them weapons.

We also should not expect the Saudis to exert maximum pressure on Palestinians to attend or to fund the lion’s share of the $68 billion Trump is reportedly seeking. Saudi King Salman has made it clear that Saudi support for the Trump deal of the century is predicated on terms that include a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. Yet by all indications, that’s not part of the plan.

The investors’ workshop will have plenty of hoopla — photos of Arabs and Israelis shaking hands, maybe with some Palestinians, too. But without a political roadmap that lays out terms that Palestinians and Arab states can accept, the prospects for Bahrain and beyond seem dubious. Even Bahrain itself felt compelled to defend its decision to host the meeting with a strong statement supporting an independent Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem.

The first time I met Jared Kushner, who’s now in the region drumming up support for his initiative, I quipped that I wished my father-in-law had as much confidence in me as his seems to have in him; I told him, “he’s given you mission impossible.” But the fact of the matter is this isn’t about Donald Trump or Jared Kushner. They can certainly make the situation worse by delegitimizing the idea of two state solution (the least bad idea for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and greenlighting possible Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Though if they were prepared to put a serious and fair-minded plan on the table that tried to address Israeli and Palestinian needs, who knows, in time they might even make the situation better; sadly, this is not that plan.

The harsh reality is that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas, or their political constituencies, are willing or able to make decisions on borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security that could lead to a solution. And the failure of Netanyahu to form a government, with new elections now set for September, won’t make it any easier. An investors’ workshop with little backing from the key powers will do little to increase the chances for success. In short, whether the Administration accepts it or not, Trump’s ultimate deal is simply not ready for prime time and likely will never be.

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